A Santa Fe man whose 12-year-old son drowned in an auto accident earlier this week south of Diboll spoke out Friday about the crash, calling his daughter and late son heroes.
Tom Patterson, 65, said an eighteen-wheeler ran him, his son Chance and 14-year-old daughter off U.S. 59 south moments before their Hyundai Sonata crashed into the Neches River around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“We were lost, and I was driving about 40-45 miles an hour when the truck came over onto us,” Tom Patterson said in a Friday morning phone interview, adding that Beth and Chance had been asleep.
“At one point I could have reached out and touched the truck’s box, it was so close. I had to move. This guy was running me and my kids over. I had a decision to make, and I saw the yellow line so I thought I had a shoulder but then I was in the grass.”
Patterson said the vehicle bounced twice with the headlights going out on the second bump, before the four-door sedan hit the water.
Within 30 to 45 seconds, Patterson said, Chance, weighing only 65 pounds, managed to get the back passenger side door open. With the door open, his sister swam to safety as the car went under, nose first.
Patterson said his son stayed to help him open the front passenger door just before the car plunged to the river’s depth of 10 to 12 feet.
“The last thing I felt were his little hands on my shoulders,” Patterson said. “He let his door go to help me get mine open. I was feeling around for him everywhere — the back seat, the floorboard — but I couldn’t find him.”
Patterson said the last thing he thought before taking on water himself was “God please, not now.”
He said he then heard Beth screaming for him from the bank.
“I yelled for Chance, and then Beth told me: ‘Daddy, he’s dead. Get my hand, Daddy. I’ll come get you, Daddy.’
“I told her to stay there. I managed to swim on my back up to where she was and she helped pull my chest onto the bank. I was so exhausted at that point. If it weren’t for her, I would have drowned, too. She told me she was going to get help.”
Patterson said it took about an hour before Beth made it back with Diboll police officers and first responders en route.
“It took her a while to get someone to stop,” Patterson said. “She knocked on a door and no one answered. She waved at people, and they wouldn’t stop. Finally, she said, she ran out in the middle of the road.”
As Patterson and his daughter made their way to Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin, a recovery team comprised of Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens and Due’s Wrecker Service owner Johnny Due worked to retrieve the sunken vehicle. Due said it took about an hour to find the car, which had apparently come to rest on its roof.
“The game wardens had been dragging the water, and they actually found it, but we didn’t realize it was the vehicle until we got my boat out there with Structure Scan Imaging,” Due said. “From there we used a grab hook to get the car. It took only about 15 minutes to bring the car up.”
The Patterson family had been headed home to Santa Fe from getting Patterson’s older daughter, away at college in Indiana, a new vehicle after she had an accident earlier in the week.
“Yeah, it was a long drive and I was tired, but I didn’t fall asleep,” he said. “I had three of those 5-hour energy drinks to stay awake.”
After the accident, Patterson said he wants to find the truck driver who ran him off the road. He added that he thinks if the road had been marked “no shoulder,” he wouldn’t have run into the river.
“I’ll never forgive the truck driver, and I’ll never forgive the county for not marking the road,” he said. “I would have gladly given my life so my kids could live.”
DPS spokesman David Hendry said the crash remains under investigation and that as of Friday, no charges had been filed. As part of the investigation, Patterson said he voluntarily gave a blood sample at the hospital.
Chance’s funeral is set for today in Santa Fe.
According to his obituary, Chance was a Santa Fe Junior High School student who enjoyed playing basketball, his guitar, going to church, texting and playing video games — his life’s goal to be an aeronautical engineer.
Jessica Cooley’s email address is jcooley@lufkin
dailynews.com. The Lufkin News is a sister paper of The Galveston County Daily News.